originally published February 8, 2013
If you ever have doubts about the incredible growth of the medical profession over the last 300 years, remember the story of Mary Toft.
Mary was a British peasant woman from Godalming, Surrey. She had three kids, a journeyman clothier husband named Joshua, and not a lot of money. When she found herself knocked up again in 1726, she had to keep working in the fields. August rolled around, and with it came a miscarriage. It was painful and unpleasant, as was most everything medical back then. But somehow Mary was still pregnant, and on September 27, she went into labor.
This is where the story starts to get weird.
She gave birth, not to a baby but to… animal parts. Ann and her mother sent them to John Howard, a man-midwife from Guildford. John was intrigued, or at the very least, freaked the hell out.
John showed up and checked out the animal parts. He didn’t buy it. He was called back a couple days later when Mary went into labor again. More parts. This time, John himself delivered “three legs of a Cat of Tabby Colour, and one leg of a Rabbet.” He assumed – as I’m sure we all would, having watched countless seasons of ER and St. Elsewhere – that she gave birth to most of a cat because she had a pet cat who slept on her bed at night. Her brain, focusing on little Whiskers, created the cat-baby.
A few days went by, and Mary once again spewed some rabbit parts from her nether-regions. People had started to talk. A representative of the court of King George I dropped by and collected a few of the samples. John moved Mary over to Guildford, where he offered to deliver rabbits in the presence of anyone who doubted Mary’s story.
That should have been a giveaway right there that something was up. But John and Mary had hooked the king’s representative, and it was a matter of days before Nathaniel St. André, the respected Swiss surgeon who ran the medical wing in King George’s pad, dropped by. Nate was doubtful, but curious.
By mid-November, King George and his family were too curious to let this story drop into the background. St. André was sent, along with Samuel Molyneux, secretary to the Prince of Wales, to check it out. John welcomed them, then brought them in to meet Mary, who promptly delivered a rabbit torso. St. André checked it out – it was legit. Later that day, another torso. That night, a rabbit’s head.
Mary’s contractions were violent and looked tremendously painful. As the only doctor in the room, St. André examined her, and determined that he rabbits must have grown in her fallopian tubes. This was one of the most respected doctors in the country, giving the thumbs-up to human-bred rabbit-babies.
Enter the doubter.
Surgeon Cyriacus Ahlers was sent by the king to check the situation out. He noted that Mary often kept her knees and thighs together, as though holding something in. And even though Doc Ahlers was a man-midwife himself, John wouldn’t allow him to help out with the next birth. Ahlers told them all he believed the magic story, then slipped back to London to check out some samples of Mary’s vaginal bunny bits. He observed that they appeared to have been cut using a man-made instrument. Also, there were bits of grain and straw in the rabbit droppings, suggesting either Mary had very odd eating habits or this was all bullcrap.
Doc Ahrens told the king what he felt to be true: that this was all a hoax. King George sent St. André and his buddy, Samuel Molyneux back to Guildford. John met them, and let them know that in their absence, Mary had become a mommy to two more rabbits. St. André, who bought the story completely, set about gathering affidavits from neighbors and witnesses who swore they had seen Mary deliver these things. St. André wanted to discredit Doc Ahrens; he even presented an anatomical demonstration (probably using puppets) to King George on November 26.
Mary and John (and presumably Joshua, Mary’s husband… remember him?) were brought to London and set up in a bagnio – a bathhouse where she could be stashed from the world.
Richard Manningham, a well-known obstetrician, took over medical duties in London. He was a little suspicious when an apparent hog’s bladder (that smelled of urine) was delivered, but he kept his mouth shut.
By this time, Mary’s rabbit-part babies were the talk of the nation. People stopped serving rabbit stew – hey, they’re practically people now!
Nathaniel St. André called in more eminent physicians – though ‘eminent’ at this time included John Maubray, who had written a text detailing how women could give birth to creatures they dreamt or saw. Maubray was thrilled that Mary’s story backed up his strange theory. James Douglas, who was like the Dr. House of man-midwifery in England at the time, wouldn’t come near Mary, believing the whole thing to be a hoax. Now under 24-hour supervision, Mary went into labor, but nothing came of it.
On December 4, it all fell apart, thanks to this guy:
That’s Thomas Onslow, 2nd Baron Onslow. He did a little investigating, and learned that Joshua Toft, Mary’s husband, had been buying young rabbits. Lots of them. Then came the confession by a porter at the bagnio that he had been bribed by Mary’s sister-in-law to sneak a rabbit into her room. Mary claimed it was for eating only.
Let me repeat that: Mary claimed, after two months of popping rabbits out her hoo-ha, that she had a craving for gnawing on some rabbit flesh. The final straw came when Richard Manningham told Mary he needed to perform major surgery on her, to ensure there was nothing in her uterus that could cause her harm.
It seems she had met a woman who had told her how to insert the rabbit (and cat) parts into her body. Mary had believed this scam would bring her fame and fortune. I’ve got to hand it to her – reality TV hadn’t been invented yet, but Mary already had that 21st-century desire to be rich and famous without doing anything useful or productive.
John Howard, the man-midwife, was fined £800 (about £94.8 thousand today) for his part in perpetuating the scam. Nathaniel St. André, who had published a 40-page pamphlet on December 3, less than a week before Mary’s confession, had staked his reputation on this case. His career never recovered, and after his buddy Samuel Molyneux died mysteriously of poisoning and St. André married the widow, his reputation was shattered.
As for Mary, she was arrested, but no charge was officially laid against her. She’d made no profit from the hoax, and no damage was done (though Nate St. André may have disagreed). She and Joshua moved back home and had another kid.
That’s right, after Mary had spent months cramming dead animal parts into her coochie, Joshua still wanted to tap that. If that isn’t a medical miracle, I don’t know what is.